May 29, 2021

French Open 2021 Preview: Round by Round

It's been just over seven months since we crowned the last king and queen of Roland Garros, and yet, on the eve of the 2021 French Open it somehow feels like it's taken such a long road to get back.

After all, it's been a dramatic clay court season, with surprising upsets, stunning statements, and pretty impressive breakthroughs.

Rafael Nadal has proven he is not invincible on clay. Perennial powerhouse Simona Halep had to withdraw due to a calf injury. And for the first time, possibly in history, we have two defending women's champions back to keep their win streaks here going -- and they've both made pretty good cases for themselves.

As the draws shake out, we have the opportunity to see some fierce match-ups, and the surprises could start coming right at the get go. So here's a look at some of the possibilities and the potential battles that could really make things interesting at Roland Garros this year.

And, as with the last time, I'm essentially resetting the draw after each pairing -- someone who had to be eliminated for one match to take place may show up later in another one. It's only because there have been so many standouts this season that there's no other way to cover it all.

So let's dive right in.


First Round

Aryna Sabalenka (3) vs. Ana Konjuh (Q): Well this is a tough first round for both players. The heavy favorite Sabalenka is at a career-high ranking and is pretty fresh off picking up the biggest title of her career in Madrid. She also made the final in Stuttgart and, of course, has been putting one of the strongest win streaks out there. But...she has never made it past the fourth round of a Grand Slam. Konjuh, meanwhile, made the quarters at the U.S. Open years ago, and after a long recovery from injury is finally back in form. She scored wins over Madison Keys and Iga Swiatek in Miami and successfully pivoted to clay with a final run in Belgrade. Still at #144 in the world -- she was sub-300 in Miami -- she had to fight through qualies to get here, but she could put up quite the fight against someone many consider a potential champion.

Sofia Kenin (4) vs. Jelena Ostapenko: Last year's runner-up opens her point defense against 2017's recently resurging champion, and I'm not sure I like her chances. Kenin has struggled with injury and form and has only won one match since the Australian Open. Meanwhile, Ostapenko is coming off a quarterfinal showing in Rome. But the young American has a new coach and has shown that she's more than capable of shaking off bad losses. Still, this one is going to be close.

Carla Suarrez Navarro vs. Sloane Stephens: CSN's farewell tour was disrupted first by COVID and then, tragically, by cancer, but she's back for one last hurrah at Roland Garros and all sorts of sentiment is one her side. It's hard to tell what condition she'll be in (though her social profile suggests she's in fighting form), but she'll certainly face a challenger at the outset. Suarrez's first round opponent is the 2018 runner-up in Paris, and while Sloane famously rides a roller coaster in terms of performance, she may be on the upswing -- she made the quarters in both Charleston and Parma, with wins over favorites both times. Still, the Spaniard, twice a quarterfinalist here, has had some career-defining wins over the years, and hopefully has a few more left in her.

Veronika Kudermetova (29) vs Amanda Anisimova: The on-paper favorite has had a strong year, with a run to the final in Abu Dhabi and her maiden title in Charleston. It's bad luck that she'll open her campaign here against 2019's surprise semifinalist. But it's been a tough two years for the young American -- after suffering the death of her father during her breakout year, she kicked off this season with a COVID diagnosis and an ankle injury and she's struggled to gain traction ahead of her return to Paris. Still, at only 19, she's probably got a lot of room to surprise us, and she's beaten much more formidable opponents on these courts before. If she's playing at her best, this one could be a battle.

Second Round

Bianca Andreescu (6) vs. Maria Camila Osorio Serrano (Q): The former U.S. Open champ doubled her 2019 win record on clay with her performance in Strasbourg. Unfortunately, that means she still only has two wins on the surface this year. She cut her run short last week to take care of an ab injury, and she'll be tested pretty quickly on the big stage. MCOS, after all, has been racking up wins this season -- the 19-year-old picked up her first title as a wildcard in Bogota, made the semis the next week in Charleston, and picked up in Europe with a run to the semis in Belgrade. That got her into the top hundred -- not soon enough to have her avoid qualifying rounds, but she breezed through those without dropping a set. She's faced Andreescu what feels like years ago, in the final of an ITF event in Oklahoma, and only won one game, but something tells me things will be different this time around.

Serena Williams (7) vs. Arantxa Rus: Rus has had some huge wins on big stages over the years, stunning then-#2 Kim Clijsters at Roland Garros in 2011 and then-#5 Sam Stosur at Wimbledon a year later. But that was a long time ago, and she really never came to much after that. She did upset second seed Jessica Pegula this past week in Strasbourg, though, and came OHSOCLOSE to beating Williams last year in "Cincinnati" too. Could she seal the deal this time? Possibly -- as Serena continues to go for that elusive 24th Major, she's hit one roadblock after another, and she hasn't really found her footing on clay this year. She'll put up a fight, of course, but everyone should know by now that she's far from invincible, and if both these ladies make the second round, Rus certainly has a shot at an upset.

Garbiñe Muguruza (12) vs. Sara Sorribes Tormo: I was all aboard the Sorribes bandwagon in the early spring -- the 24-year-old was impressive in her run to a maiden title in Guadalajara and even more impressive in her quarterfinal fight against Bianca Andreescu in Miami. Strangely, for a Spaniard, she's been a little quiet on clay. Her compatriot, meanwhile, was the champion here five years ago and is a far better player than her ranking suggests. It's a tough early round for both, but one that could spark some fireworks.

Ekaterina Alexandrova (32) vs. Barbora Krejcikova: Krejcikova is a decorated doubles star, with a couple Major trophies over the years -- she and Katarina Siniakova won both the French and Wimbledon in 2018 and were runners-up in Melbourne earlier this season. But she's really started gaining traction on the singles scene over the last few months, making the fourth round in Paris last fall and the final in Dubai in March. But Alexandrova is no slouch either -- she beat Simona Halep and Iga Swiatek in the Gippsland draw to start the year -- and I'm perennially shocked to see how "low" her ranking is. These two have met twice already this year, with the seed getting the win at the Australian Open and Krejcikova pulling off the upset this past week on her way to the title in Strasbourg. Given the surface, I wouldn't be surprised to see that outcome play out again.

Third Round

Naomi Osaka (2) vs. Paula Badosa (33): This is where things get interesting. Osaka isn't the best player on clay -- she's never made it out of the third round here, and she lost early in both Madrid and Rome -- and her draw got a whole lot harder on Friday with the withdrawal of 27th seed Alison Riske. That's because it elevated Belgrade champion Paula Badosa into seeding territory, and the red-hot Spaniard already has wins over Ashleigh Barty and Belinda Bencic on clay this year. Badosa had before been in the Sabalenka/Serena quarter, but even as the lowest seed things are looking a lot better for her now, and if she can pull of a win here, it might be hard to stop her until the semis.

Jennifer Brady (13) vs. Coco Gauff (24): Brady may be the more seasoned player here, and she may have some impressively deep showings at the most recent Slams, but this is a whole new court, and Coco's been the one grabbing all the headlines on it. A semifinal run in Rome and not one but two titles in Parma brought her to a career high ranking of #25 in the world, and a couple wins here will certainly drive her even higher. Of course, this match-up is not a sure thing -- Gauff could face Melbourne Cinederella Su-Wei Hsieh in the second round, while Brady may have to get through clay specialist Fiona Ferro herself. But if they both make it, I feel like the edge goes to the younger phenom.

Nadia Podoroska vs. Sorana Cirstea: This potential battle would require a couple upsets early on -- Cirstea opens against 2019 French semifinalist Johanna Konta, while 2020 French semifinalist Podoroska will start her point defense against tenth seed Belinda Bencic. But there's plenty of reason to believe both can pull off the wins. Cirstea, a one-time quarterfinalist at Roland Garros -- twelve years ago! -- has her groove back after a title in Istanbul and a second place finish in Strasbourg, while Konta has only scored three match wins this year. And Podoroska, who stunned Serena Williams in Rome, could easily get the better of a recently-spotty Bencic. In any case, I'm excited to see these two face off and can't even begin to pick the favorite.

Fourth Round

Elina Svitolina (5) vs. Karolina Muchova (18): Svitolina is a solid clay court player and has had a lot of success on the courts of Paris, making the quarters three times. But while she's had some decent wins this year -- Petra Kvitova in Miami and Stuttgart, Garbiñe Muguruza in Rome -- she hasn't really had a standout moment in a little while. After all the upsets at the French last year, she was for a brief moment a favorite for the title, but then got crushed> by Nadia Podoroska in the final eight. Muchova, on the other hand, had her coming out party a few months ago, beating Karolina Pliskova and Ashleigh Barty on the way to her first Slam semi in Melbourne. And about a month ago she beat Naomi Osaka en route to the Madrid quarters. She's slated for a rematch with her compatriot, a three-time finalist in Rome, but I wouldn't be surprised to see her make another attempt at a deep run now.

Petra Kvitova (11) vs. Danielle Collins: Collins may only be ranked #50 in the world, but she is no slouch on clay, having reached the quarters last year with wins over Ons Jabeur and Garbiñe Muguruza along the way. She's had some big successes this season too, taking out Karolina Pliskova at the Yarra Valley Classic and Ashleigh Barty in Adelaide. But she had to undergo a pretty harrowing surgery for endometriosis last month and hasn't been seen on court in a while. She says she's playing without pain and more consistently now, though, which could make her an even bigger force than she usually is. While she might have to get through Angelique Kerber and Serena Williams first, she could very well set up a showdown with last year's semifinalist at the end of the first week. Kvitova is one of those consistent favorites, though, and always seems to up her game when you least expect it. I imagine this could be a fun one.

Maria Sakkari (17) vs. Jessica Pegula (28): Sakkari is one of those players I really want to see big things from, and she gets so close to making that happen so often. Last year she pulled off a massive win over Serena in "Cincy", but lost the next round; this year she stunned Naomi Osaka in Miami, and again dropped a match later. Pegula, on the other hand, has had a little more follow through, even when she's a far bigger underdog. After stunning Victoria Azarenka in the first round of the Australian Open this year, she went all the way to the quarters. Then as a qualifier, for some reason, in Doha she made her way to the semis. And while she did lose to Sakkari in Miami, she followed up a win over Osaka in Rome to make the final eight there. Seeded at a Slam for the first time, she might have to make it past last year's runner-up Sofia Kenin first, but if there's one thing we should know about Pegula by now, it's that she's more than capable of pulling off one upset after another.

Petra Martic (22) vs. Shelby Rogers: Not that long ago I wouldn't have given Martic a second glance, but the 2019 quarterfinalist here, coached now by former French champion Francesca Schiavone, seemed invigorated in her run to the semis in Rome. But Rogers has made the quarterfinals in Paris before too, and she'll want to avenge her loss to Martic in the first round in Rome. It won't be easy for either of these two to get the rematch -- Martic is slated to face Garbiñe Muguruza in the third round, while the American could run up against the defending most-recent champ Iga Swiatek even sooner -- but it'll be interesting if they're able to make it.


Serena Williams (7) vs. Victoria Azarenka (15): Okay, okay, I know, this one's a long shot. Neither of these ladies has been playing her best recently, Serena getting upset in both Rome and Parma, while a persisent back injury forced Vika to pull out of matches in Melbourne, Doha, and Madrid. But, for old time's sake -- not event that old -- let's just say they're able to return to form again. I mean, remember that match last year in New York? Wouldn't it be fun to see that again? And if anyone can pull off the comeback, it's these two.

Elise Mertens (14) vs. Anna Karolina Schmiedlova (Q): Okay, now we're talking about long shots, but hear me out. Mertens has been one of the most under-the-radar but consistent players on tour the last several months, reaching at least the quarters in ten of her last 15 tournaments and picking up a title in Gippsland too. On clay she beat Veronika Kudermetova in Istanbul and Simona Halep in Madrid, so you know she's comfortable on this surface. Schmiedlova, meanwhile, may be far removed from the career-high ranking she hit half a decade ago, but with a win over Azarenka here just last year she's more than capable of an upset or two. Can she, as a qualifier, make it all the way to a quarterfinal? Well she's got some big obstacles in her way, starting with Iga Swiatek in the third round and Garbiñe Muguruza one after that. But what fun would sports be if we didn't get a few surprises?


Ashleigh Barty (1) vs. Iga Swiatek (8): It doesn't happen very often that you have two simultaneously defending champions at a Major, but as COVID kept Barty from traveling to Paris last fall, Swiatek was able to gloriously take up the mantle in her absense. Their only previous meeting in the fourth round of Madrid was disappointingly straightforward, with the earlier titleist getting the win in straight sets. But while the world #1 has a field-leading 13 wins on clay so far this season, the younger Swiatek stormed back onto our radars with a trophy in Rome and seems primed to make a potential second meeting a little closer -- and possibly raise the bar for how two champions should compete.


Ashleigh Barty (1) vs. Aryna Sabalenka (3): There is a lot that can happen over the course of the next two weeks, but it seems fitting that the two winningest players this season could face off in another final. They already split their title contests in Stuttgart and Madrid, so why not add Paris to their rivalry? I admit, I've been skeptical about Barty's staying power in the past, but she's really proven she's deserving of that #1 ranking. Sabalenka may have a little more work to do, though -- despite a career-high ranking and a long and impressive win streak, she's never gotten out of the fourth round of a Major. And with a tough first round here she'll be tested off the bat. But in a half that's really wide open, I'd expect something big from her now.


First Round

Daniil Medvedev (2) vs. Alexander Bublik: I'll save the complaints about Medvedev's second seeding for later, but regardless, there's no doubt he's had one of the strongest twelve-month stretches out there. Still, he's not a fan of the clay -- something he's made very clear over the past few months. He's one just one of three matches on the surface the year -- and has a barely better record for his still-young career -- and has never won a round at Roland Garros. It'll be hard to change that against the barely unseeded Bublik, a player I continue to believe is better than his ranking. The Kazakh isn't that much better on dirt, but he did manage to make the quarters in Madrid, with wins over Denis Shapovalov and Aslan Karatsev. Whether he makes a big statement here, I'm not sure, but I wouldn't be surprised to see him get at least this upset.

David Goffin (13) vs. Lorenzo Musetti: The seeded Goffin has had a couple of pleasantly surprising results this year -- taking the title in Montpellier and stunning Alexander Zverev in Monte Carlo -- but outside of that, he's been pretty quiet. Nineteen-year-old Musetti, on the other hand, has continued to climb the rankings, making the quarters in Cagliari and the semis in Lyon. I'm kind of calling for the upset here, but what a confidence boost it would be if Goffin could get a win over this up-and-coming/already-arrived star.

Emil Ruusuvuori vs. Mackenzie McDonald (Q): McDonald is still well off his career high ranking, but a fourth round showing in Melbourne and a Challengers title in Nur Sultan have helped boost him a little. He still had to play qualies here, though, but made it through without losing a set. For his efforts, he gets a shot at the 22-year-old Finn whose name I had to learn how to spell after a solid defeat of Alexander Zverev in Miami. It's certainly a winnable match for the young American, but not one he should take for granted. And if he can pass the test, it could help launch him back where he belongs.

Second Round

Dominic Thiem (4) vs. Federico Delbonis: Thiem is a two-time finalist here and a fairly-newly-minted Grand Slam champion, but a nagging knee injury has really hampered his effectiveness this year. While he managed a decent run in Madrid, he's been upset more than he's been winning. Delbonis, meanwhile, has been pretty active all spring, playing week in and week out, upsetting Pablo Carreño Busta in Spain, reaching the quarters in Rome, and this past week reaching the semis in Belgrade. He's never had a lot of success at the Majors, only made the third round once at the Australian Open five years ago, but this might be the best chance he's had in a while.

Stefanos Tsitsipas (5) vs. Sebastian Korda: It wouldn't be a Major if we didn't see at least a few popcorn matches right at the start, and this could be one of them. Twenty-year-old Korda has been slashing his ranking all year, reaching the final in Delray, the quarters in Miami, and this past week picking up his first tour-level title in Parma, ousting top seeded Lorenzo Sonego on the way. Tsitsipas, meanwhile, has two clay titles of his own this season, including his first Masters crown in Monte Carlo. The two have a huge opportunity here, in the half of the draw with just one Grand Slam title -- compared to the top half with fifty-nine combined -- and it's a shame that one will have to go home early. But you can be sure they'll both be battling to make sure they're not that one.

Lorenzo Sonego (26) vs. Cameron Norrie: The 26-year-old Italian is another one who's been climbing up the rankings in recent months. Since that miraculous win over Novak Djokovic last year in Vienna, he's gone on to win a title in Cagliari and score wins over Andrey Rublev and Dominic Thiem in Rome. Norrie notches his own upset of Thiem on his way to the Lyon final and also came in second in Estoril. He has yet to bring home that maiden title, but he's certainly finding his footing on the clay. The winner of this match will have a tough road ahead of him -- Rafael Nadal likely awaits in the third round -- but it certainly will make a case for potentially bigger runs over the year.

Third Round

Andrey Rublev (7) vs. Carlos Alcaraz (Q): Here's another potentially explosive early match-up. Rublev has followed up nicely on his breakthrough season, reaching the quarters of his last three Majors, picking up another title in Rotterdam, and absolutely stunning Rafael Nadal in Monte Carlo. Eighteen-year-old Alcaraz's successes have been on a much smaller scale, but a semifinal run in Marbella, a Challengers title in Oerias, and a perfect record in the Roland Garros qualies, gives him a nice winning streak coming into the main event. He'll likely face Munich and Doha champ Nikoloz Basilashvili in the second round, but sparks may really start to fly if he can set up the match with the top-ten Russian -- and it could give us a good taste of what the future of tennis will look like.

Diego Schwartzman (10) vs. Aslan Karatsev (24): This one pains me. After a late-in-his-career breakout, which included a win over Rafael Nadal last year in Rome, Schwartzman's been pretty quiet in 2021, losing his opening round four times. I am somewhat mollified by the fact that he did pick up a title in Buenos Aires and that his losses came against talented players, but it's still not a precedent you like to see. Karatsev, on the other hand, has been virtually unstoppable. Since his Cinderella run in Melbourne, he picked up his first title in Dubai and scored wins over Novak Djokovic, Daniil Medvedev, and, yes, Diego Schwartzman. I wouldn't be surprised if things go his way again, but I'm hoping the Argentine is able to find his magic again.

Roberto Bautista Agut (11) vs. Kei Nishikori: It's been a long time since we've seen fan-favorite Nishikori at the top of his game, but this could be the best chance he's had in a while to make a statement at a Slam. At his lowest ranking in nearly a decade thanks to yet another battle with injury, he's still able to get the better of his opponents. He beat David Goffin in Dubai, Karen Khachanov in Madrid, and Fabio Fognini in Rome. RBA can't be overlooked though -- he's reached finals in Montpellier and Doha this year, beating Andrey Rublev and Dominic Thiem at the latter, and the semis in Miami, with a win over Daniil Medvedev there. But clay is weirdly not his best surface, which could crack open the door a bit for the man from Japan.

Jannik Sinner (18) vs. Albert Ramos-Viñolas: Sinner is another one of those youngsters quickly making a habit of beating top-ranked players. A quarterfinalist at the French last year, he won two titles to bridge the seasons and made a play for the big leagues with a run to the final at the Miami Masters. Ramos has been pretty busy himself, quietly amassing 17 wins on clay this season and claiming a title in Estoril to boot. He'll have to get past Gael Monfils in the first round, but with the Frenchman having only won match in the last year-plus, his bigger challenge will likely be against the wünderkind, and that one could be fun to watch.

Reilly Opelka (32) vs. Tommy Paul: It's easy to overlook the Americans on clay -- especially the men -- but these guys have been putting up some nice results over the past few weeks. Big-serving Opelka is coming off a run to the semis in Rome, where he took out Lorenzo Musetti and Aslan Karatsev, and could make a play to become the top-ranked man in the States. Paul is a little further down the rankings, but he pulled off some nice wins this past week in Parma, beating Jiri Vesely and Jan-Lennard Struff on his way to the final four. He's suppsed to face Daniil Medvedev in the second round, but as I've mentioned, that's not a guarantee -- nor is beating Alexander Bublik, to be honest -- but if he makes it, a battle against his countryman would give someone a little bit of bragging rights.

Alejandro Davidovich Fokina vs. Arthur Cazaux (W): This one might take a little bit of doing, but it's not the craziest of thoughts. ADF has followed up nicely on his strong 2020 season, making the quarters in Monte Carlo and the semis in Estoril. And while likely second round opponent Hubert Hurkacz scored the biggest-yet win of his career in Miami, he's been less impressive on clay, winning just one match so far against world #171 Thomas Fabbiano in Monte Carlo. Eighteen-year-old Cazaux is playing his very first Major main draw -- he lost first round qualifying in Paris last year to Aslan Karatsev -- but he has scored wins this year over Sebastian Korda and Adrian Mannarino. And we know how well French wildcards can do at Roland Garros. Cazaux would likely need to get past super-surging Casper Ruud -- more on that later -- to set up this one, but stranger things have happened.

Fourth Round

Novak Djokovic (1) vs. Marco Cecchinato: During those years I'd stopped writing and paying attention to every twist and turn in the tennis world, something very strange happened -- Novak Djokovic stopped winning Majors! After locking in the Career Grand Slam at the French in 2016, he went on a two-plus year stretch without earning another big title. And one of the biggest surprises during that run came at the hands of Marco Cecchinato, who stunned him in the Paris quarters in 2018. Then it was the Italian's turn to start losing -- eight straight Major first rounds as his ranking dropped back out of the top hundred. He may be getting back on track, though, reaching the final this past week in Parma. It's not crazy to think he might be able to engineer a rematch -- the first seed he'd face is Alex de Minaur, who's only ever won one match here, and the second is David Goffin, who might not make it even that far -- though expecting a repeat is probably a little less likely. Still, it'd be fun to see him try.

Roger Federer (8) vs. Matteo Berrettini (9): Now this one scares me. It's been over a year since we've seen Roger at a Major, and his performance since has been spotty at best. He drew the short end of the draw stick, with both Rafa and Nole in his half of the bracket, and the other Grand Slam champion in this section, Marin Cilic, is his probably second round opponent. Meanwhile, Berrettini has been suprisingly impressive of late, winning a title in Belgrade and making the final in Madrid. Fed has won their two prior meetings in 2019, but if the seedings play out as expected early, things may go differently this time around. And I'm not sure how I feel about that.


Dominic Thiem (4) vs. Daniel Evans (25): Weirdly, it might be the lower-rated Brit that has the better chance of setting up this match. Evans, who kicked off this year with his first career title at the Murray River Open, may have scored the win of his career when he beat Novak Djokovic in Monte Carlo. That certainly makes him more of a factor on a surface that's not traditionally his best. Thiem, though, who usually thrives on clay, has been a little more spotty post injury and has plenty of challenges on his route. So does Evans, of course, but if he survives, this one could be fun.

Alexander Zverev (6) vs. Casper Ruud (15): In an alternate universe Madrid champion makes good on his seeding, beating Evans in the third round, and Geneva titleist Casper Ruud, who also took out Stefanos Tsitsipas in Madrid, overcomes Thiem too, setting up what may, in the end, be a more likely quarterfinal. I begrudgingly admit Zverev has remained a force despite his off-court drama, and with some easy early rounds, should make it through relatively unscathed. And Ruud, who's sitting at a career-high ranking, is due for a Major breakout. There's no reason this can't be it for him.


Novak Djokovic (1) vs. Rafael Nadal (3): It's not often that these two face off outside a final, especially at the French, so the fact that they're doing so now has plenty of people up in arms. After all, it's a pretty big injustice that Nadal is seeded third here -- sure, you can argue that he's had a quieter 12 months than world #2 Daniil Medvedev, but given the latter's obvious disdain for the surface -- and the former's dominance on it -- you'd think there could be some leeway. There are plenty of reasons for Rafa fan's to be nervous -- the last time he took on the Djoker before the final Sunday in Paris did not go his way, and he's been less than perfect this clay court season. Then again, so has Nole. And given how close their last meeting was, you know this one is going to be close. Whoever wins, though, if they're not completely spent from the battle, you have to think comes away with the title.


Rafael Nadal (3) vs. Stefanos Tsitsipas (5): This pick may not be what the seedings predict, but given this clay court season it would be the most appropriate. Rafa, of course, will have to make it through a half which contains all of the Big Three, with a combined 58 Grand Slam titles between them -- adding in 2014 U.S. Open champ Marin Cilic makes it 59 -- not to mention a potential quarterfinal against Andrey Rublev, the man who beat him in Monte Carlo. Tsitsipas, on the other hand, with a season-leading 16 wins on clay this year, compared to Nadal's 14, has it relatively easy, with just one Major title in his half. He's never reached a final at this level though, falling just short at last year's French, but there's no question these have been the two best players on the surface this year. And given how close their previous matches have been, if they get a chance to play for this crown, you know it's going to be a good one.

Novak Djokovic (1) vs. Alexander Zverev (6): In another alternate universe, hearts are broken and justice is not served, but two very strong clay courters nevertheless reach the final. Djokovic made up for his slow start to the clay season, bringing home a title at the second Belgrade Open earlier today. And if there is anyone who'll be able to recover in time for a Slam, it's him. He doesn't often get the better of Nadal on these courts, but he's got what might be the best shot he's had in a long time this year. After all, he only barely lost the title to him in Rome, and that after a double header the day before. Zverev, meanwhile, has his own win over Nadal at a clay Masters and an arguably easier road to what woud be his second Slam final. If this is the championship we get, you know I'll be all in for Nole -- but Zverev seems destined for a trophy soon, and this might just be his time.

Well there you have it, the matches I hope or believe we'll see over the next two weeks at Roland Garros. Of course, we can't bank on anything at the Majors, and as much as we know we should never count out Rafa here, there are plenty of others ready to take up the mantle, and a lot more primed to make a big splash.

And as we kick off the second Grand Slam of the year, let's hope we can make it a good one.

May 24, 2021

One Last Shot

It's not all that often you see the sport's top players in action so close to a Major, but there's nothing all that common about much these days. And with a host of early upsets and various measures taken around the still-not-completely-eradicated global pandemic, it's no wonder a couple stars are looking for any opportunity they can get to notch a few wins before heading to Paris.

Bianca Andreescu seemed, finally, to be getting her game back on track in Miami before injury forced her to retire during the final. Things got worse from there, when she tested positive for COVID in Madrid and was forced to skip Rome due to continued safety protocols. So this is the first time we've seen her on a clay court in almost exactly two years, and it's no wonder she wants to get some practice in.

The 2019 U.S. Open champ hasn't had a ton of success on these courts, winning her opening round during her breakout year before withdrawing against Sofia Kenin a match later. In years before, she didn't even qualify -- understandable, considering she's still only twenty years old. But, in part thanks to the protected ranking system, she came to Strasbourg this week the top seed and the sole entrant in the top 25. She opened her campaign with an encouragingly straightforward win over qualifier Andrea Lazaro Garcia, dropping just three games and will face another qualifier in the next round.

Of course things get harder from here, with a potential quarterfinal against Istanbul champ Sorana Cirstea or sixth seeded Shaui Zhang. And second seed Jessica Pegula is coming off a run to the quarters in Rome, where she got the better of Naomi Osaka in the second round -- she would be a more-than-formidable opponent should they meet in the final. But even if she doesn't make it that far, getting a few more wins under her belt will be crucial if she wants to have an impact next week.

Meanwhile, Novak Djokovic has also had an uncharacteristically quiet clay court season. As the man who might have actually become the second best clay courter on tour -- he's got five titles in Rome, three in Madrid, two in Monte Carlo, and of course that Grand Slam-completing crown at Roland Garros -- you usually expect him to win a title or two on clay each season.

That hasn't happened this year, though. After his stunning upset at the Rolex Masters, he bowed out early again at the first Belgrade event in his homeland of Serbia. While he did manage to make it to the Rome final, having to play a double header before the championship match in which he rallied from a set-plus-break deficit to Stefanos Tsitsipas and survived a tight three setter against his Vienna vanquisher Lorenzo Sonego, he eventually ran out of steam against Rafael Nadal and currently has a paltry-for-him one title on the season.

He's looking to get his momentum back as he returns to Belgrade this week. He'll open against lucky loser Mats Moraing, who pulled off a nice win over a tricky Egor Gerasimov today, and will then likely face either veterab Pablo Cuevas or Federico Coria in the quarters. With #2 seed Gael Monfils, the biggest on-paper threat in the draw, winning just one match in the last fifteen months, Novak is the clear favorite for the title -- whether he sticks it out to the end or takes a break after a couple matches remains to be seen. That strategy has, after all, certainly worked before.

Win or lose this week, it's clear both these guys are looking for a little more real match play before hitting the courts at the big event. Because, as we know, everyone in the field is going to be bringing their best and there's no time to waste getting warmed up. So a couple wins now could really pay big dividends in the near future.

May 21, 2021

Ready to Take Over

There's been a lot of chatter this week, after early and shocking losses by Roger Federer and Serena Williams, about whether it's time for the OG to hang up their racquets and call it a day. And while I think it's a little to early to make that call, there sure seem to be a lot of young whippersnappers chomping at the bit this week to take their place.

Some are players we've been talking about for a while, like Lorenzo Musetti, whose win over Stan Wawrinka last year in Rome put him on everyone's radar. He's continued to climb up the rankings this year, beating a struggling Diego Schwartzman on his way to the Acapulco semis, and now sits inside the top hundred. This week in Lyon, he's got the better of a couple other young stars -- seventh seeded Felix Auger-Aliassime in his opener, followed by a three-setter against Sebastian Korda. His win today over Aljaz Bedene earns him a semifinal date with Stefanos Tsitsipas, who's been red hot this clay season. And while the 19-year-old lost their only previous meeting so far, he might be able to put up a bigger fight now.

Then there's Coco Gauff, who seemed to have cooled off a bit since her stunning 2019 season. But she pulled off two stunning wins last week in Rome, defeating Maria Sakkari and on-fire Aryna Sabalenka to make her first 1000-level semis and she brought that momentum with her this week to Parma. At a career-high of #30 in the world at just 17 years old, she took out a resurgent Kaia Kanepi, fellow teen phenom Amanda Anisimova, and, earlier today, Serena's vanquisher Katarina Siniakova. She'll play the second final of her career tomorrow against sixth seed Qiang Wang -- who, you may remember, beat Serena in Melbourne last year -- and something tells me she might be walking away with her second trophy.

But there are also a couple players who haven't had quite as splashy a career yet, but seem to be managing quite well anyway. Paula Badosa is a little older than the rest of these, guys, but she's really coming into her own now and delivering consistently. After a rough start to the season, the 23-year-old dealt a stunning upset to Ashleigh Barty in Charleston and then notched her second straight win over Belinda Bencic to make the semis in Madrid. That earned her a third seed this week in Belgrade, and so far she's lived up to expectations, not dropping a set yet and beating veteran Andrea Petkovic in the process. She'll face lucky loser Viktoriya Tomova for a spot in her first career final, and the way she's playing I can't see her stopping short.

And then there's young Maria Camila Osorio Serrano, emerging as the breakout star of this clay court season. Ranked just #180 in the world when she hit the courts in her native Colombia, she walked away with a title in Bogotá and a legion of new fans. The very next week she opened her Charleston run with an upset of second seeded Magda Linette and continued on to the semis. She still had to play qualies in Belgrade, but kept her momentum going there too, taking out, this time, third seed Shuai Zhang on her way to her third final of the year. She might have a tougher test to make the final though, with a rebounding Ana Konjuh waiting for her tomorrow, but she'll pulled off big wins before and might just establish herself as the spoiler here and beyond.

Of course, it hasn't been all great news for the shiny young things. Wünderkind Jannik Sinner, who has climbed to a career high of #17 in the world at age 19 and has notched wins over Andrey Rublev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, and Alexander Zverev in the last twelve months, was stunned this week in Lyon by little-known Arthur Rinderknech. And 18-year-old Leylah Fernandez, one of my players to watch this year, dropped a tight three-setter today to Tomova.

And while the veterans may not be ready to throw in the towel on their long careers just yet, they will one day have to, and there sure seems to be a lot of talent waiting in the wings to claim their thrones.

May 16, 2021

Déjà vu

There was something very familiar about championship Sunday this weekend in Rome, wasn't there? Like we'd seen these two champions sharing the stage somewhere before.

But the return to the winner's podium for Iga Swiatek and Rafael Nadal was far from a sure thing, and the fight they showed to get there proves they both know how to bring their best when it really counts.

The Ladies

Let's start with the ladies, whose clay court season has given us a varried array of champions all pulling off big wins. But with perennial favorite Simona Halep struggling with injury, and hardcourt powerhouse Naomi Osaka still struggling to get her footing on the dirt, it's been Ashleigh Barty and Aryna Sabalenka that have been most consistent, with the two splitting the last two big titles on the surface. But the former pulled out of Rome with an arm injury and the latter was stunned by Coco Gauff in the third round, allowing last year's breakout star Iga Swiatek a pass to the final.

That's not to say the 19-year-old Pole had an easy time of it this week. Swiatek, who crashed out of Madrid just last week in a battle of two women who'd both won their last seven matches at Roland Garros, had to fend off two match points against Barbora Krejcikova, a very talented doubles player whose really upping her solo game too the last few months. Krejcikova had already beaten French Open runner-up Sofia Kenin, and came a whisker away from doing it to Swiatek too before the fifteenth seed was able to rally.

Meanwhile in the bottom half of the draw, where one favorite after another was summarily eliminated, it was Karolina Pliskova who fought through to her third straight Rome final -- she won the title back in 2019. But Swiatek was way too much for her to handle on Sunday. The on-paper underdog didn't drop a game in the 46-minute match, barely even lost a point, double-bagelling her opponent in the most lopsided Premier-level final since 1988.

The win, the third of Swiatek's still-nascent career, is her first truly big statement of the season -- she picked up a title in Adelaide back in February -- and should push her into the top ten for the first time in her career -- an honor that seems a long time coming thanks to the revised ranking system. But more importantly it should put her back on track as she looks to defend her big title in Paris. And if she plays at the level she did today, she has a pretty good shot at doing it.

The Men

Things were a little less cut and dry in the men's final, but that's what you'd expect when you have the two best clay court players, arguably of all time, facing off in their 57th career meeting with another Masters title on the line. But despite their years-long dominance, here too, the road to the final was not easy for either Novak Djokovic or Rafael Nadal.

The top seed and world #1 has proved himself surprisingly fallible in recent months. After his record ninth trophy at the Australian Open, he lay a little low, skipping Miami and not surfacing again until Monte Carlo, where he was stunned by Dan Evans in the third round. A week later in his homeland event in Belgrade, he lost to 2021 standout Aslan Karatsev, and he then pulled out of Madrid.

Returning to Rome to defend his title he played well early, but was caught off guard by Monte Carlo champ Stefanos Tsitsipas in the quarterfinals, getting down a set and a break before rain suspended the match. He somehow found it in him to regroup on Saturday, get the win, and survive a nearly-three hour slugfest against Lorenzo Sonego -- who, you remember, beat him last year in Vienna -- in the semis. After more than five hours on court, he'd have to get right back to it on Sunday.

Nadal may have had an easier few days recently -- he avenged a loss to Madrid champ Alexander Zverev on Friday and saved all four break points he faced against Reilly Opelka in the semis -- but that doesn't mean he hasn't been tested. He's been surprisingly unprolific during his usually breezy clay court season, with losses not just to Zverev, but to Andrey Rublev too, and he even faced match points against Denis Shapovalov in the third round here, before rebounding.

But in spite of all the drama and hard work these two had already put in this week, they showed up to Sunday's final to give us more. What else should we expect? In their 29th meeting with a title on the line, Djokovic came out swinging first, getting the early break before Rafa came barreling back. He captured the first set, but got in a bit of trouble when Nole took the second 6-1. It appeared his long Saturday had little effect on his game today and he was back to top shape. But Nadal was able to get a stave off a couple of threats early in the decider and broke deep in the third, holding on to capture the win and get within one match of even in their all-time head-to-head.

So what will all this mean as we get ready for Paris? Well it certainly calms the nerves of any Rafa fans who was starting to get nervous. And it certainly bolsters the case for Swiatek to repeat her own breakout success. But there are a lot of other players in the wings ready to take the crowns themselves. And maybe this year, more than any in recent memory, there's a shot for a couple of them to do it.

May 14, 2021

Comeback Stories

It's been a long year-plus for everyone, and tennis players are no exception. Of course the struggles on court pale in comparison to what's been going on around the world, but it's easy to see that some who were riding high at the end of 2019 have been on shaky footing the last few months.

But some recent performances in Rome suggest things may swinging back in their favor.

I'll start with Karolina Pliskova who came into last season as #2 in the world. She'd picked up three titles in 2019 and kicked off the new year with another one in Brisbane, beating Naomi Osaka in the semis. But since then she's been pretty quiet, losing early at all the Slams, getting upset by Jessica Pegula (three times in a row!), Danielle Collins, and even then-world #292 Anastasia Gasanova.

She came to Rome the 9th seed, and while she's been pretty consistent here -- she won the title in 2019 and made the final last year -- I wasn't putting too much stock in her. But she's been on point so far, beating veterans Anastasija Sevastova and Vera Zvonareva before today coming back from a set down to take out a resurgent Jelena Ostapenko, a former champion at Roland Garros. Back in the semis again, the pressure will be on, but she might just have her confidence back to keep going.

She'll have to get past another comeback kid to do it though. Veteran Petra Martic climbed to a career high of #14 in the world while I wasn't looking, thanks to a solid 2019 season where she won the title in Istanbul, made the semis in Stuttgart and the quarters at the French Open. This year has been a much different story, though -- she's got a 4-8 record, with five of those losses coming in first rounds, and she hadn't gotten a win yet on clay, arguably her best surface.

She's turning things around this week though -- after avenging her Yarra Valley loss to Shelby Rogers in her Rome opener, she took out Kiki Mladenkovic (who'd beaten Belinda Bencic) and Nadia Podoroska (who'd stunned Serena Williams) to set up a quarterfinal against Jessica Pegula (who'd shocked Naomi Osaka). Here too I didn't give her much of a shot -- Pegula may be ranked lower, but she's cleary been having the better year. But Martic demonstrated her edge on these courts, knocking out her opponent in straight sets and earning her the first Premier-level semi of her career. And in a battle with Pliskova, I really don't know who has the advantage.

And finally there's a case of, if not entirely a comeback, then certainly revenge. After all, Rafael Nadal is still #3 in the world and he did pick up a record 12th title in Barcelona last month. But he's also shown he can be vulnerable on the surface he's dominated for the last sixteen years. He was stunned by Andrey Rublev in Monte Carlo and notched a third straight loss to Alexander Zverev in Madrid. And just yesterday he was down a set and a break (plus two match points!) before sealing a win against Denis Shapovalov.

That had me worried when he faced off against Zverev for a second week in a row earlier today. But this time Rafa wrote a different story. The nine-time champion in Rome fought off all eight break points he faced in the second set and secured the win in just under two hours. He'll now face Reilly Opelka in the semis, and while the big serving American has been impressive himself this week, Nadal is 11-0 in this round at this venue. Of course that doesn't guarantee a win by any means, but I'm sure hoping he's found the game he seems to have been struggling with a bit this season.

May 9, 2021

A Few More in the Mix

It feels like every year, around this time, I start getting a little nervous.

However Rafael Nadal has done during the clay court season -- whether like in 2005 and 2008 and 2013 he won basically every event on dirt he played, or like in 2015 or even last year, he won barely any -- you start to wonder about his chances to take home the big prize at Roland Garros.

And while he often seems to pull things together when they count the most, each year a couple pretenders start cropping up that might just be able to throw a wrench into his plans.

The most obvious one this week was Alexander Zverev, who captured his second title in Madrid and his fourth Masters championship with a three set win over Matteo Berrettini on Sunday. And while my acknowledgement of his win comes begrudgingly, you have to admit his performance on court was pretty impressive. After taking out Monte Carlo giant-killer Daniel Evans, he stunned Nadal in straight sets, his third straight win over the world #2, and went on to beat two-time French runner-up Dominic Thiem in the semis, avenging that OHSOCLOSE loss to him in last year's U.S. Open final. While he's had a couple early losses on clay before this week, his performance in Spain might have done a lot to erase the memory of those upsets.

But he wasn't the only one to stick out. Runner-up Berrettini has really been showing me he's deserving of his top ten ranking over the last few weeks, first claiming the title in Belgrade and this week taking out tough opponents like Fabio Fognini and Cristian Garin. In the first Masters final of his career, he took the first set from Zverev and kept things tight in the back half too. While I can't say I was expecting him to come out the winner, I was encouraged by the fight he showed and feel there might be a few more top-ten wins coming up soon in the future for him.

And you have to respect the showing we saw from Dominic Thiem, who we haven't seen in action since mid-March and who'd been playing a much quieter season than his breakout last year. After losing early at the Australian Open and then battling through various injuries, there was certainly a big question mark over his head for Madrid. But he performed admirably, taking out a talented Alex de Minaur and even a surprisingly strong John Isner, who'd stunned Andrey Rublev in the third round. While Thiem did lose in straight to Zverev in the semis, it was good to see he seemed to have found his footing again. And, of course, we know that, had this been a best of five match, there's no telling what could have happened.

Maybe the player who made the biggest case for himself this week was young Casper Ruud, who barreled onto the scene early last year and hasn't let up since. While the 22-year-old hasn't added to his trophy case this year, he has scored wins over Fabio Fognini, Pablo Carreño Busta and Diego Schwartzman. And in Madrid, he added to that list, stunning Monte Carol champ Stefanos Tsitipas in straight sets on his way to the semis. Though he lost to Berrettini there, he did earn himself a career-high ranking at #16 in the world. And the way he's playing, there's no reason to believe he isn't going even higher.

So do any of these guys have a real shot at dethroning the king once we get to Paris? Well, we know Nadal is not going to give up his crown easily, whatever happens in the weeks leading up to Roland Garros. But one day soon there is bound to be a changing of the guards, and it sure looks like there are plenty of players more than ready to take up the reins.

May 8, 2021

A Reversal of Fortune

Remember a couple months ago when Aryna Sabalenka came back from losing ten straight games to Sara Sorribes Tormo not just to win the next twelve and the match, but to claim the singles trophy in Ostrava?

Well if that didn't teach us that the 23-year-old can turn around any situation, then perhaps her performance at the Mutua Madrid Open over the last ten days will.

Perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised to see the Belorusian powering through her draws. That recovery in the Czech Republic was part of a fifteen match winstreak between last October and this January. And while Sabalenka has had a couple of losses since, they've mostly come at the hands of truly formidable opponents -- yes there was the surprise upset by Aussie Cinderella Kaia Kanepi, but there were also real battles against the supremely talented Garbiñe Muguruza, Serena Williams, and two straight versus #1 Ashleigh Barty.

Those losses to Barty were important ones. The first this year came in the quarterfinals of Miami, which the Australian would go on to win, cementing her position at the top of the sport and quieting doubters, myself included, who questioned whether she should remain there without having played for nearly a year. The second came in the Stuttgart final, which squelched those who thought Naomi Osaka, laying claim to two Grand Slam titles but having little impact off the hardcourts so far, was more deserving. Had either of those matches gone Sabalenka's way, those doubts about Barty might still exist -- and today's result may not have so sweet.

But as it stood, it was the two winningest players on tour who made it to the final at the Caja Magica. Sabalenka, with 23 victories this season going into Saturday's match, had notched wins over rising star Jessica Pegula and doubles partner Elise Mertens on her way. Meanwhile Barty, with 25, got past the other defending Roland Garros champion Iga Swiatek, three-time Madrid champion Petra Kvitova, and surprise semifinalist Paula Badosa. And both had the opportunity to make a real statement as we head into the final stretch of the clay season.

Sabalenka came out of the gate swinging, too, running away with the first set in less than 25 minutes, but as with their other recent matches, Barty wasn't ready to go down without a fight. After trading breaks to start the second, she was able to close it out and force a decider for the title. And while it stayed close in that final set, Sabalenka stunningly broke her opponent at love in the ninth game and then closed it out.

The win earned Sabalenka her tenth career title and her first on clay, and it'll help push her to a career high ranking of #4 in the world, passing Sofia Kenin. It also ended a 16-match win streak Barty had on red clay and a 10-match streak against top ten opponents.

Of course, the real question will come down to what happens on the dirt of Paris -- Sabalenka, for all her strength and ability against the top players in the sport, has never made it past the fourth round at a Major, never past the third at the French Open. I've long thought that that was a streak aching to be broken, and maybe this is the time for it to happen.

After all, if anyone can turn things around, it certainly seems to be Aryna Sabalenka.

May 2, 2021

The Unlikely Leader

If I'd asked you at the start the year who, a month away from the start of the French Open, you thought would be the winningest player on dirt, chances are 33-year-old Albert Ramos-Viñolas wouldn't have featured high on your list.

Ranked barely in the top fifty at the beginning of the season -- barely cracking the top forty over the last three years -- the veteran Spaniard has long been vastly overshadowed by his much more decorated compatriots, scoring a few big wins here and there, but never really having the breakthrough of his contemporaries.

Perhaps that is about to change.

Ramos kicked off his clay campaign in Córdoba this year, where he stunned top seeded Diego Schwartzman and three other Argentines on their home turf before ultimately falling to young, history-making Juan Manuel Cerundolo in the final. A week later he reached the semis in Buenos Aires, losing this time to the elder Cernudolo, Francisco, in another three set nail-biter.

He got right back to work after the Golden Swing ended, going the distance in all three of his matches on his way to the Marbella semis and forcing Andrey Rublev, fresh off a monster win over Rafael Nadal in Monte Carlo, to sweat it out in Barcelona. All that work gave him a season-leading eleven clay court wins going into this week's action, better than Rafa with seven and Stefanos Tsitsipas, who broke into a new level with his win at the Rolex Masters and then barely lost to Rafa in the Barcelona final -- he has nine.

Sure, Ramos's victories may have come at smaller events, but that doesn't negate their value. And he even widened the gap this week. Seeded seventh in Estoril, he finally had the benefit of some drama-free wins, dispatching his first four opponents, including former world #7 Fernando Verdasco and rising star Alejandro Davidovich Fokina, in straight sets.

In Sunday's final against Britain's Cameron Norrie, he was finally tested, dropping the first set and getting down another break before turning things around. The more experienced Ramos was able to break back in a marathon game early in the second set and after nearly three hours on court finally secured the win -- now his sixteenth clay court victory this year.

It was, I was surprised to learn, only Ramos's third career title -- given how long he's been on tour, it seemed like he should have been picking up a couple more over the years. But with by far more wins than anyone on clay this season, and a few weeks stil to go for this stretch, I imagine he'll get the opportunity to try for a few more.

Will that make him a factor when the stakes really get raised at Roland Garros? Well, it is the only Major where he's gotten past the third round -- he made the quarters there in 2016 with wins over Milos Raonic and a then-#25 Jack Sock. And he might be able to work his way up to a seed by the time the even kicks off at the end of the month, which could give him a bit of an edge.

Of course, so much can still happen between now and the French. But if nothing else, Ramos has certainly shown he's one to pay attention to, and that even the favorites may have to look out if he's in their way.